Beginning: Menu  Pre-History  Domestication  Return to America  Return to the Wild   Mid-1800's to 1970   The Creation of the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program   Wild Horses & Burros in the 21st Century
Alternative Histories   Our Mustang Heritage


Photo: Tracey Westbury

1. The First Wave: Spanish Mustangs From Mexico
2. Native American Horses

3. The Second Wave: Modern Era Mustangs

"Although the basis of legends, escaped horses from the early Spanish expeditions were not the seed stock of the wild horse herds of the American West. Only after the mission system in New Spain was established did horses begin to populate North America. Native groups, like the Apache, raided the missions for horses, and undoubtedly a few horses would have escaped. "
- Dr. Philip Sponenberg

Although many have tried to find it, to date there is no evidence to support the idea that wild horses originated with the early Spanish Explorers and Conquerors. As Spain began to colonize the New World, their need for horses outstripped their ability to find enough in Europe to import. So they set up breeding farms in Mexico. What breeds of horses did they raise? Breeds were almost unknown in those days, only functional type. All evidence indicates that the type of horse being produced on Mexican breeding farms was a short, swift, spirited animal with great agility and hardiness to survive hardship. These were then exported to all the Spanish colonies in Mexico and the Southwest.


The first wave of Wild Horses originated in New Mexico, and spread North and East, across lower Texas and the Great Plain. This wave began with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.  (from "The Horse in the New World" exhibit at the Buffalo Bill Museum)  Early maps sometimes simply wrote the word "Wild Horses" over large sections of the lower Great Plains, into the Rio Grande area of Southwest Texas. Horses brought up from Mexico by Spanish colonists took root in California's lush coastal hills and Central Valley. We are familiar with the "seas" of bison herds. At one time wild horses were similarly numerous.

For an eye-witness account of the 1680 Pueblo Uprising, told by a missionary click HERE;
For historical analysis of the Great Pueblo Uprising, click here

"The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was the single most successful act of resistance by Native Americans against a European invader. It established Indian independence in the pueblos for more than a decade, and even after Spanish domination was re-imposed, it forced the imperial authorities to observe religious tolerance."

The Revolt, in addition to driving the Spaniards from the Santa Fe-Albuquerque region for more than a decade, also provided the Pueblo Indians with several thousand horses. Almost immediately, they started breeding larger herds, with the intention of selling horses to the Apache and Comanche Indians.

The widespread use of the horse revolutionized Indian life. While mounted Indians found that buffalo were much easier to kill, some tribes such as the Comanche met with great success when they used the horse for warfare.

Wikipedia reports the prevailing view that one result of the Revolt was that "The Pueblo Indians acquired horses from the Spanish, thus allowing the further spread of horses to the Plains tribes.[2]"

(Note that The Louis-Joseph LaVerendrie account  differs with this prevailing viewpoint for the date for Native American possession of horses)

From 1680 to 1740, horses spread across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes and by the mid-1740's the Native American Horsemen cultures were in full bloom. European explorers often noticed and reported seeing Spanish brands on some of the Indian horses.

Spanish colonists and missionaries brought horses from Mexican breeding farms into California and Oregon. California had large herds of wild horses, similar in size to the herds of the Texas plains, by the mid-1700's.

The Great Plains and the Pacific Coastal Range were ideal for horses, with its huge stretches of grassland. The horse's predators were limited to the mountain lion, the grizzly bear, and well organized packs of wolves. In the early days of the United States, these predators did exist throughout the West, and they performed the important role of keeping the horse herds strong and vigorous, by preying on the weak and infirm.

Gradual climatic change, combined with severe overgrazing throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, have permanently altered many arid Western ecosystems.

Much of the land that is now desert was originally a short grass prairie, supporting large bison or pronghorn herds, and the horses found it most easy and natural to join them on their ancestral grounds. 

Like the Bison, the herds of wild Spanish Mustangs on the Great Plains were nearly completely eliminated by the dawn of the 20th Century, in the wake of massive European-American settlement.

Unlike the bison, the Spanish herds were eliminated both by actual removals, as well as by inter-breeding with new strains of horses brought there by homesteaders and farmers, and being assimilated into domestic horses. Most modern wild horses show some Spanish ancestry in their DNA, but they are also descended from horses who came to their region with colonists and pioneers from other parts of the world.


Current research indicates that Native American groups did not have horses until they came to North America with the European colonists. The first native people to acquire horses were probably the Pueblo Indians who were subjugated by the Spanish colonists in what is now New Mexico and Arizona. The native people were forbidden to own horses, but, as serfs, it was part of their job to care for the Spanish horses, and eventually to ride them and help herd the cattle. Of course, eventually the colonists let down their guard, and horses began to disappear into Indian hands. The Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680 released thousands of horses into the lower plains, and many were captured by the local Indians. These people began to trade horses to the more Northern and Eastern tribes, and within a few short years, the grand era of Native American Horsemen was in full swing.

Native peoples from the North, in what is now Canada and the Pacific Northwest, started to acquire French horses in the 1600's as well. These were larger, "cooler-blooded" horses than the hot little Spanish horses.

Like the pioneers and ranchers who followed, many tribes allowed their horses to graze on the open range, where they mixed with unclaimed wild horses. When tribes encountered horses from French, English, and Eastern North American pioneers, these horses interbred with the horses they already owned, who were of Mexican/Spanish origin. Many tribes continued to acquire new stock by trading for them, or stealing them as the occasion arose. But a few began to selectively breed their own. The Nez Perce are most famous for their development of the Appaloosa horse, and other Northwestern tribes developed the Cayuse, which had both Spanish and French blood.

Here's a link to a history of the Cayuse horses of the Umatilla People


Today's wild herds live almost exclusively in the arid, rocky Great Basin areas of the western states of Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. Montana shares one wild herd on its Wyoming border.

Horses did not come to the Great Basin areas until homesteaders, ranchers, and prospectors began settling there in the middle to late 1800's. They brought with them draft, carriage and saddle horses, including many horses of Spanish ancestry purchased from Mexican breeding farms.

Since fencing materials were scarce and the rocky land hard to dig holes into for fenceposts, it was the common practice there to simply allow stock to roam the range, and people would go get them when needed. Of course, some were never re-captured, and these formed the beginning of today's wild herds. Ranchers in the Great Basin managed the herds in their area, releasing stallions of good domestic breeding to breed with the range mares, removing poor quality animals, etc. Thus local herds acquired recognizable characteristics.

When Europeans came to the West with their cattle and sheep herds, they made use of the open range to feed their stock, allowing them to roam freely until needed. Domestic horses often ran with wild herds, and ranchers often would introduce their own "desirable" stallion into a wild herd, with the intention of capturing the offspring for ranch work or for sale to the military as "cavalry re-mounts."

When the Native Americans were subjugated and forced into reservations, thousands of their wonderful "Indian Ponies" were released into the wilderness.

Catching a Wild Horse, by George Catlin

Wild Horses on the Plains, by George Catlin

Indians of the Northwest bred horses that mixed the small, swift Spanish horses with the larger, calmer Norman-type horses they obtained from the French. 
The original Appaloosa was developed by the Nez Perce Indians of the Northwest.

Domestic horses and sheep running free on the open range, eastern Washington - photo: Yakima Library



Beginning: Menu  Pre-History  Domestication  Return to America  Return to the Wild   Mid-1800's to 1970   The Creation of the BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program   Wild Horses & Burros in the 21st Century
Alternative Histories   Our Mustang Heritage